The benefits of capitalism are irrefutable – but we need to win hearts as well as minds

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Critics of the free market focus on claiming that while such policies might benefit the strong, healthy and rich the victims are the weak, the sick and poor. It is a system of “greed not need”, the “law of the jungle”, “the Devil take the hindmost”. The world is seen as having a fixed amount of resources and competition treated with disdain as a method of someone grabbing more than their “fair share.”

From Adam Smith’s writing about the “invisible hand” through to Ayn Rand’s provocative declaration about “the virtue of selfishness” efforts ave been made to explain how getting rich in a true capitalist system can only be achieved by satisfying the wants of others. Greed means meeting need. But that is a bit counter intuitive. Sometimes it seems easier to point out how much tax the top one per cent pay. Or note how much Bill Gates gives to charity. Those are valid points but they are subsidiary ones.

The statistics on the dramatic decline in global poverty are remarkable. The latest estimate from the World Bank is that 8.6 per cent of people on the planet live in extreme poverty. That is defined as $1.90 a day in 2011 purchasing power parity. In 1987 there 41 per cent

in extreme poverty. By population the number on extreme poverty is down from two billion in 1987 to 735 million by 2015 – at the same time, of course, the world population has been rising. The website Human Progress has given countless variations on this theme. It is a capitalist success story on the most astonishing scale. It is the socialist countries – North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela – that have been left behind.

Much of the explanation is that innovation is allowed to flourish in an open market but is suffocated under a system of state control and ownership.

But far more could be done. A report in The Guardian recently stated:

“Stifling international regulations have been blamed for delaying the approval of a food that could have helped save millions of lives this century. The claim is made in a new investigation of the controversy surrounding the development of Golden Rice by a team of international scientists. Golden Rice is a form of normal white rice that has been genetically modified to provide vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in the developing world. It was developed two decades ago but is still struggling to gain approval in most nations.”

The science writer Ed Regis has written a book on the subject and says the restrictions are due to some powerful international lobbying:

“Greenpeace opposition to Golden Rice was especially persistent, vocal, and extreme, perhaps because Golden Rice was a GM crop that had so much going for it.”

In 2013 the Conservative politician Owen Paterson, at the time the Environment Secretary said:

“Golden Rice was first created in 1999 by German professors Potrykus and Beyer and a not-for-profit independent research institute to help tackle vitamin A deficiency. It is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in children. The World Health Organisation estimates that this results in up to 500,000 children going blind a year – 250,000 of

whom will lose their lives within a year. The problem is particularly severe in South East Asia.”

“None of the existing varieties of rice contains vitamin A. Golden Rice was only possible as a result of genetic engineering. We should all reflect on the fact that it is 15 years since it was developed and attempts to deploy it have been thwarted. This is despite the seeds being offered for free to those who need them most. In that time, more than seven million children gone blind or died.”

Of course, new products need to be tasted. Risk needs to balanced. But the obstruction, in this case, goes beyond all reason. It is a moral disgrace.

There are happier examples of innovators who have been able to proceed. Robert Mwanga has bred the orange-fleshed sweet potato in Uganda – it is rich in Vitamin A unlike regular sweet potatoes. Orange-fleshed sweet potato production has taken off in other countries too, including Tanzania. It is driven by profits, not subsidy. Free trade, not restrictions. It is reducing blindness and infant deaths.

Socialists are almost as fond of claiming to be “progressives” as they are of proclaiming their credentials as the friends of their poor. They present the free marketeers as reactionaries – defending the entrenched privileges of the boss class. These false claims are linked. By blocking progress it is the socialists that obstruct poverty reduction. It is frustrating for us that assumptions so at odds with reality should be so widely held. Thatcherism may have conquered the planet but among the British – especially well educated young people – its true progressive message is lost. I’m not sure quoting statistics we be enough to win hearts and minds. We need to talk more about Golden Rice and orange-fleshed sweet potato.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and former Conservative Councillor. Follow him at: @harryph

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